July’s NSO Showcase on WETA Classical features two tragic love stories from Italy…Nino Rota’s suite from the ballet based on the Fellini film, La Strada (the Road), and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. In between, Hilary Hahn joins the NSO for Brahms’ Violin Concerto. Gianandrea Noseda conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in alI three works, which were recorded live at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
There’s something remarkably similar between Nino Rota’s La Strada and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. Both have a sense of cinematic grandeur. Romeo and Juliet’s passionate love theme is, for me, very “Old Hollywood” --larger-than-life. Tchaikovsky’s use of leitmotifs, or themes representing Friar Laurence, the Capulets and Montagues and the two lovers is almost Wagnerian, as is the apotheosis-- the idea of true love being subsumed in death. The murder scene in La Strada reminds me of the fight scenes in Tchaikovsky, and Rota’s soaring musical descriptions of the Italian landscape are reminiscent of Copland. In both stories, a third character, Il Matto, "The Fool” in La Strada, and Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet, tries in vain to save the day. Oh, and one more thing: you’ll end up humming the “love” theme in both pieces.
In preparation for this NSO Showcase, I watched the 1954 Fellini film La Strada (The Road) and can completely understand how it won the Oscar for best foreign film (the first ever such award) in 1957. Nino Rota composed the score, one of nearly 70 soundtracks he wrote for Fellini. In 1966, La Scala commissioned Rota to write a ballet based on the movie. The result was a one-act,12-scene ballet, from which Rota extracted a 7-movement suite. The story is about a simple-minded girl, Gelsomina, who is sold by her desperately poor mother to Zampanó, an abusive itinerant circus strongman. During their travels, he teaches Gelsomina to be his clownish sidekick, and to play the trumpet and drum as part of his act. Along the way, they meet a circus performer, Il Matto, who teaches Gelsomina the lovely melody that will become the Suite’s main theme. Zampanó kills Il Matto, and Gelsomina loses her mind. Fellini’s wife and Anthony Quinn had the principal roles in the movie. NSO concertmaster Nurit Bar Josef plays the beautiful theme on her violin, and principal trumpet William Gerlach reprises it at the end.
Rota’s music tells the story with such visual power that you can really “see” the movie and the ballet in your mind’s eye. Another quasi-cinematic work is Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, with its dramatic action and unforgettable love theme. A couple of years ago, I took my 5-year-old grandson to hear the Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, after first having explained the story to him—after all, 5-year-olds don’t typically know Shakespeare, or the course of true love. I told him: First you hear the priest Friar Laurence...it’s like music in a church...He lives in a town where the two most important families, the Capulets and the Montagues, hate each other. You’ll hear their war-like music next. The beautiful melody comes when their children, Romeo and Juliet fall in love...they’re so sad because their families are always at war, and so they can’t be together. I must admit that the part my grandson liked best was the lifelike battle scenes that alternated with the increasingly passionate expressions of the love theme. He thought the triple forte climax which signals the death of Tybalt and the lovers’ tragic end was really cool, but he was sad when he heard the timpani and double basses pounding out a funeral march in the coda with friar Laurence mourning the death of his two young friends. The love theme returns in an apotheosis of sorrow, until it is cut short by the orchestra’s violent final chords. I’m amazed that three years later, my grandson still talks about how the music made the story real for him. That’s the genius of Tchaikovsky: he can bring to life a dramatic tale with such clarity, such beauty and orchestral color that even a 5-year-old boy can be enthralled for 20 whole minutes!
This summer, NSO at Wolf Rrap presents several stellar movies and more in concert...blasting off with Host’s The Planets in HD with footage from NASA, plus Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, Jurassic Park, and the musical Rent. Plus, music from the Studio Ghibli anime Films of Hayao Miyazaki.
One of the highlights of summer programming at Wolf Trap is Hilary Hahn playing Brahms’ Violin Concerto with the NSO on August 4th. For a preview of that performance, be sure to listen to the July NSO Showcase program which features Hahn, 3-time Grammy award winner and 2023 Musical America Artist of the year, playing that very piece, Brahms' Violin Concerto, in a Kennedy Center performance from October, 2021.
Brahms got a lot of help from his pal, the celebrated violinist Joseph Joachim during the composition of the concerto. Since his instrument was the piano, and he couldn’t be bothered with crucial details like bowing and phrasing, Brahms left that task up to his friend. He and Joachim were in constant touch working and reworking the solo part, a wonderful vehicle for Hilary Hahn’s virtuosity. The Washington Post was enthusiastic: “Her cadenza toward the close of the first movement was a feat of control and abandon, a stunning balance of the explosive and expressive. She played the aching adagio of the second movement with intensity and lyricism, to which principal oboist Nicholas Stovall and the entire wind section imparted a sublime warmth.” The Post went on: "Maestro Noseda whose love of the Violin Concerto was made clear by his physical embrace of it—guided the orchestra through bold surges of color and hushed shadings with an uncanny mix of elegance and gusto.” The reviewer added that the audience acclaimed the performance with three standing ovations.
NSO Showcase will be on summer hiatus following the July program, but there’s plenty of live NSO music at Wolf Trap this summer. NSO at Wolf trap offers an exciting array of performances, from Holst’s The Planets with NASA footage to Hilary Hahn in Brahms’ Violin Concerto; from Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi to The Return of Joshua Bell. Details at NationalSymphony.org.
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